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I SOMETIMES CARRY a rosary these days, a Spanish one of wooden beads that a friend gave to me. I used to think that it reflected the same impulse as needlework, which I do inexpertly—a desire for the consolation of repetition. Now I consider it a spiritual discipline, as I try, in middle age, to develop a prayer life consisting of more than, “Help me!” It has taken me a long time to comprehend what it is to live the day through the frame of prayer.

I do not yet really know how to say the rosary, my ignorance partly reflective of the learning gaps of a Catholic schooled mostly since Vatican II, when many traditional practices were deemphasized, as well as twenty years of only sporadically attending mass. I desperately wanted to leave behind my family’s melancholy past, which was inextricably linked with Catholicism. So now, while I have learned the rosary’s exterior form, its cadences are not fluent with me, as is the practiced work of the needle. Often, it is just a beaded string to me, a tangle and a nuisance. I sometimes want to lose my clunky black rosary, as I did my last, a red and decorative version, which I dropped on the filthy floor of an airport parking garage while on a business trip.

This may or may not have been an accident, but the rosary calls. Pulls.

All of which explains why I recently picked up Gary Wills’s The Rosary: Prayer Comes Around. I never would have searched for it, but there it was on the new books shelf at the Maine State Library. I checked it out with faint embarrassment; I’m ashamed of my religiosity, when once I was as anti-Catholic as one can be. And Maine, where I live, seems such a Protestant place. Unlike Providence, Rhode Island, where I grew up, no one in Maine has a bathtub shrine in the yard. There are no holy cards stuck in barbershop mirrors, no extended families of plastic saints on dashboards. Spirituality is contained here, hidden behind plain faces, plain façades, altars empty of ornament.

Prior to my library discovery, I’d made a few halfhearted, fruitless attempts to understand the devotion—obtaining unctuous and perplexing pamphlets from the Santa Fe cathedral, searching the web. But the rosary remained foreign and totemic. Even my sister, the ex-nun, didn’t remember how to say it, although she tried when she was having troubles with her son.

So here was Wills, the Catholic public intellectual, writing about the rosary, which he had recited with his high-school classmates in May, Mary’s month, during his time at a seminary in the 1950s, and while awaiting the birth of his first child. Wills has seen the abuses of the practice, such as the wholesale dispensation of indulgences, its fall from favor, and its reemergence during the tenures of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

His book outlines the complex evolution of the rosary as devotion, but it is also an instructional for those like me, who have no idea how to say the beads. The rosary is, as John Paul II notes, “a method aimed at attaining a high level of spiritual concentration by using techniques of a psychological, repetitive, and symbolic character. The rosary is situated within this broad gamut of religious phenomena.” But it is not mechanical, and it is separate from practices used simply for stress relief. It is connected to the incantatory, revelative ceremony of Catholic religious life. One is changed by its telling, I have come to think, drawn closer to incarnation. If there is self-discovery in the rosary, it occurs through a narrative that acts upon us.

I did not think this when I first read Wills’s book. I thought: okay, but how do you say it? The rosary seemed part of the incomprehensible Catholic universe I had either just missed as I was growing up, as reforms took place, or during my long absence from the church. This was a country populated by Holy Hours, the sodality, Knights of Columbus, Dismas Ministry, Cursillo—all the strange, vaguely weird things I did not understand, things that seemed part of an old lady’s world, one I had thought died with my parents’ generation, for almost everyone I had grown up with had long since left the church. My embittered, “recovering Catholic” pals rolled their eyes about the religion, treated it with an amused, testy grievance which never diminished.

When I returned to Catholicism, I only met converts (“converts” my relatives would have called them, with a slight disdain), who were enthusiastic and knew all about these things and much more. But I missed the prodigals who felt the twitch upon the string.

As Wills explains, the rosary, which descended from the medieval Psalter, is composed of a series of repetitive prayers, the beads serving as a counting device. The Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Doxology (“Glory Be…”) are repeated in different combinations. During each ten-bead decade, one contemplates a particular “mystery,” an event in the life of Christ and Mary, such as the nativity or the crowning with thorns. The mysteries come in sets of five, one mystery for each decade of beads. Until recently, there were three sets of mysteries: joyful, sorrowful, and glorious. John Paul II added luminous or teaching mysteries to this list, and each set is said on a particular day of the week.

The rosary befuddled me, not merely because of what seemed like great complexity (Wills said it was “very easy in practice,” but I considered that Catholic-speak for the routine learning of the unfathomable, in which I was continually immersed in childhood), but because of its place among the complex arcana of an ancient religion, which was the underpinning of my early life and which I am only now beginning to understand. For while I do not remember learning the rosary, all around me, people knew it. At the cathedral-like church where we worshipped, Blessed Sacrament, the close air was filled with the murmuring of women and men, heads bent, saying the rosary. When my mother and father died, the spare, sad rosaries were among their sparse effects. Scattered as they were among my father’s button jars, my mother’s scratched daffodil paperweight, the beads seemed to embody my parents’ painful lives. They reflected not only devotion to Mary, and through her, Christ, but devotion to memory, to everything my parents and other relatives—everyone in my early world—prayed for, received and did not receive. The beads were emblematic, not simply of my own past, but my family history, of lives spent in a mean city which gave little quarter and less in the way of illusion. Many people today would say that Catholicism, which defined the lives of my parents and their parents, was an illusion. But the people I came from would not have seen it that way, nor do I see it this way now.

If the rosary was at once mysterious and ubiquitous in my early life, Mary, whom it importunes, was even more so. My sister entered the Sisters of Mercy when I was five and she sixteen, donning a habit that mimicked the dress of the Virgin in old-fashioned Catholic iconography—my sister’s round face was surrounded by a veil of dark serge, her athletic shoulders and freckled arms invisible.

In our shabby Providence house, the Blessed Mother was similarly mysterious, a presence both lovely and remote. Dusty images of her glowed in corners, most particularly the Madonna and Child portraits by Da Vinci and Titian that my uncle had brought back from the Roman seminary he attended in the 1920s and 1930s. Their ornate gold frames and saturated colors illuminated the faded floral wallpaper in the parlor and front entry. In the Da Vinci, Mary laughed. She was garbed in silk and velvet, her chubby son nestled in her arms. In the Titian, she stared downward and slightly to her right, self-contained.

In both portraits, Mary exhibited a tender luminosity, the terrible fate of her son seemingly unknown to her, although her baby had a searching gaze beyond his years. There was a deep gravity in the portraits as well as a transcendent radiance. This internal gravity aligned with the atmospheres of the places in which we lived: the shadow of history in our Providence house, and later the darkness of our ugly Aztec-yellow ranch house.

As a small child, I discerned in these images not only beauty—Camus’s “bread of man’s heart”—but also distance, an intuition that remained unaltered in a thousand viewings of Marian images in my early life. The Blessed Mother was everywhere and nowhere—in statues at Blessed Sacrament Church and School, in portraits and plastic images in houses, in holy cards and novenas, in prayers, in the May shrines that we created every year. Yet her remoteness was impenetrable.

This inapproachability had an intuitive appeal. Mary’s faraway look in the Titian echoed the deep Irish reserve with which I was raised. It was a reserve full of silences and secrets; my relatives in Providence’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, who were middle-aged by the time I was born in 1954, had led complicated lives, full of tragedies of which they almost never spoke and of which I, even now, know only the dimmest of outlines: my mother’s early boyfriend, George Kelly, who died of leukemia as a teenager (“He looked just like that Don Johnson,” she said of him once, when she was seventy-four); the mid-life drinking, fall from grace, and resurrection of my uncle, Father Joe; most of all, my mother’s childhood companion, closest to her in age, my secret Aunt Charlotte, who died an alcoholic prostitute at thirty-two.

My relatives never spoke of Charlotte, as they did not speak of many things; great swaths of their lives went to their graves with them. My grandparents were impoverished millworkers, and I have only one photograph from my mother’s early life. Taken in 1910, it featured Ma and her older siblings, Joe and Charlotte; they flanked my tiny, grim-faced mother, who was seated on a wicker chair.

Only Charlotte smiled, a wide, gap-toothed grin. A white satin bow pulled back her fine, brown hair. This I inherited, my Aunt Gabe combing out the tangles for me when I was a child, and later wore pulled back with a plastic barrette.

“She was the best-looking of any of us,” Gabe, whom everyone called by her first name, muttered about Charlotte. Gabe was my mother’s unmarried sister and lived with my parents, brothers, and me in Providence. She was my confidante and caretaker, as my mother had gone back to work.

Gabe did not like to discuss the past, but over the years I made a number of devious inquiries about Charlotte. My mother said that her older sister had “gotten in with bad company,” my relatives’ catchall euphemism, meaning in this case Irish gangsters.

This did not greatly surprise me, for the childhood and youth of my mother’s relatives were speakeasy years in Providence, lived on a very thin line between sacred and profane. In Mount Pleasant, it was not uncommon for one child to enter the religious life and another to end badly; years later, I found out that Father Joe’s best friend, a nun who became diocesan superintendent of schools (and yes, they were friends, and only that), had once had a brother who ended up in the Providence River (“with his feet in cement,” Gabe had added significantly).

My mother thought that she and Charlotte might have been close, had her sister ever returned from South Providence, then and now the city’s most dangerous neighborhood. At fifteen, Charlotte had taken a job in a jewelry “shop” (or small factory) and fallen in with the gangsters and later, many other men.

She eventually became very ill. I do not know what her illness was or if she was ever taken to a hospital. I do know that Father Joe, who lived a few blocks away at the cathedral’s chancery, frequently visited her before she died. He had returned from Rome to look after his parents, who were also ill, of the heart trouble that would kill them in their fifties.

Charlotte had had two common-law husbands by the time she died in the boarding house where she had received her clients.

“She wouldn’t go with the niggers, though,” Gabe had said, looking away, uncharacteristically hard.

“Her legs were all swollen up,” Father Joe told my mother and Gabe. “But the room was clean.”

“I don’t like to talk about it,” my mother said, smoking a Salem, expressionless.

That was the end of Charlotte, whom I thought I resembled and for whom I felt a kinship—partly because of her tragedy, partly because I was born on the feast day of Mary Magdalen, the patroness of fallen women.

When I think of the rosary, I think of Charlotte, perhaps because I associate it with women and secrets: “Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart.” I also think of history, of the youthful ghosts of Father Joe, Ma, Gabe: Father Joe’s fair head above his cassock, Ma’s Mary Jane wedding shoes, the Nash Coupe automobile of which Gabe spoke with such affection.

Charlotte, however, is only a rustle of pebbles.

I do not remember learning the rosary at Blessed Sacrament, but if I did, it would have been in the lower church, where children were exiled for separate services. There we sat, obedient, starched and smoothed, taught by nuns, this time the Faithful Companions of Jesus, who also wore serge, along with the wimpled bonnets of Victorian governesses. I recall them as less tough than the Sisters of Mercy, their visages seemingly innocent and transparent, akin to the blue and white statues of Mary in the basement, which were garlanded with plaster roses.

From there, I heard the rosary’s recitation upstairs, my parents, aunts, and uncles saying it under the soaring buttresses, the great dome sheltering the carved altar and baroque oratory. I listened as voices embodied the world’s sorrows, echoing like an immense wave through the church, all part of the implicit universality and power of religion, which incorporated past, present, and future in one voice.

After the children’s mass, from the main church’s narthex, I saw rosaries slipping in and out of the fingers of the waitresses, cops, and machinists of the neighborhood. I felt sound rise and fall in the nave, the music of Providence in the late fifties, that small-time hood city, venal, old, built on the Yankee triangle trade of cotton, slavery, and rum. Its song was the music of being beaten, and the air of Blessed Sacrament was beer and cigarette breath, the breath of cheap coffee milled at the A&P, the breath of rotting teeth, sideways talkers, bitter jokes, yearning.

That was the breath, filled with spirit, brought to Mary in the upstairs church where her ivory statue stood, its palms outstretched. To her right was her son, on the cross, in his agony, blood congealed on his dark face. The inscription over his head, inri, mocking him, as Charlotte was surely mocked, staggering home on Broad Street, stopping to puke in the gutter, thinking, Why is this happening to me? This can’t be happening to me. Mary watching, hearing, Why have you forsaken me? And hearing it now, from the throngs below, lifting their eyes to her open hands, her feeling the weight of the petitions as they insisted their way to her pale heart.

When I was nine, my family left Blessed Sacrament to move to an ugly house in the suburbs. My parents were in their fifties by then, people of the city. Providence, which had shaped us, did not leave us.

Sorrow was our constant. In our house, Mary’s sadness was paralleled by that of my mother, who was not only quite deaf by the time I was born, but deeply melancholic. I never saw her happy. So many incomprehensible things had happened to her, this serious girl who had excelled in Latin and Greek at classical high school, whose 1931 Rhode Island Normal School yearbook said that Catherine “had loved dancing in the gym,” as did her friend Anna Goodwin, who had also been a devotee of modern dance.

The faculty “expected great things of Catherine,” the yearbook said, not mentioning the losses my mother had already encountered: of George Kelly to leukemia, of all her teeth to malnutrition, of her parents, in her early twenties, so that she had to support her four younger siblings during the Depression on the salary of a substitute teacher. And the loss of Charlotte, of course. All this leading to a nervous breakdown and a summer at an inn in New Hampshire, which she later remembered as the best three months in her long life.

By the time I was born, when Ma was forty-four, she seemed as unknowable as Mary. She suffered from what I now realize was deep depression, which exhibited itself as an uncomprehending, opaque narcissism. She was also continually enraged.

“You never hugged us!” my oldest brother, Terry, used to yell at her toward the end of his brief life, but it was more than that. It was as if Terry, Brian, and I—my sister was in the convent by this time—barely existed as sentient beings. While we were fed and clothed, my brothers and I have no memory of my mother actually being a mother, as I later encountered them in TV shows and occasionally—for there were many harassed, overwhelmed women in that blue-collar Catholic world—in the homes of my friends. These were mothers who touched and whispered to their children, who evidenced a strange, luminous concern.

I would have flinched from such tenderness, for my brothers and I did not live in that country. My parents’ ill-matched union was a confluence of loss and disaster. By the time I came along, they were malevolent—that is the only word—toward each other.

“I’ll break you,” Daddy said to Ma when she went back to work when I was four; he never made enough money at the body shops and minor offices where he worked. She called him “a little gremlin.” But, of course, he had been brutalized as much as she: four of his eight siblings died young, of tuberculosis. TB was as stigmatized as AIDS in those days, and his mother, whom my mother called “the Old Tartar,” wouldn’t let them go to the sanitarium. This had included his favorite sister, Kate. Years later, I understood why my father became so upset when I walked the floors of the ranch house in bare feet.

“You marry the man who asks you,” my mother said, and so she did, embarrassed by her toothlessness, not wanting to be alone, feeling the lack of suitors caused by her college degree, rare for that place and time. Her father had wanted that, she said, not her. So she married a man with whom she had little in common but woundedness, which she turned on him, as he turned his on her.

Locked together in a cycle of work—they never missed a day—and misery, my parents were creatures of mute, blind repetition. Ma pursed her lips in a way I learned to fear, made endless trips to the bedroom closet to drink her Scotch, to emerge again to my father’s taunts. My parents had long before given up sharing a bedroom, and so I slept on a twin bed next to my mother, listening to her: snoring, insensible, and alone.

Through those years in the Aztec-yellow house, my mother, in her affliction, told her crystal rosary beads. She could still imagine beauty: she had saved the Madonna portraits and listened over and over to a record of Gregorian chants. For the most part, however, I think of her as a beaten, silent creature, crushed by the weight Providence had placed upon her, able only to dully mouth the old petitions. If Mary was in the room with my mother, her eyes were stone.

Perhaps this is why I did not learn the rosary; I was alone, without Gabe, who to my horror had stayed behind in the Providence house. My mother had no room for me; I think she hardly saw me. Neglected by my parents, my brothers, Terry and Brian, were in and out of mental hospitals by the time I was ten.

In those years, I felt the deadening movement of the world against us. To cope, I ate; I grew a coat of fat around the silent house of my body. Outside, my parents fought. My brothers punched holes in the walls. I rarely spoke. I hardly knew I was in the world.

Is there any wonder I did not learn the rosary? It brought up only dread, loneliness; it seemed an animal repetition without meaning, like the nattering of the mad, among whom my tender brothers soon lived. It expressed for me pure sorrow. There was no sweetness in it.

Still, in those years, I often gazed at the portraits. I still loved the tender distance of the Da Vinci and Titian, their pure radiance. This quiet luminosity is distinct to Mary, whose life was defined by silence and motherhood. Psalm 131 calls, “Truly I have seen my soul in silence and peace; like a weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul.” And the world is also silent before Mary, as George Bernanos writes, “The ancient world of sorrow, the world before the access of grace, cradled her to its heavy heart for many centuries, dimly awaiting a virgo genetrix [virgin mother].”

This was the radiance I perceived in those images. If I was formed by the harshness of Providence, the sightless animal of affliction, a contravening, more powerful force seemed to appear in the Marian images. This force was greater than the evil that had taken hold in the ground of my parents’ terrible vulnerability. While I did not know the love Mary expressed, except through Gabe, so far away now, I could long for it. The Madonnas were everything I yearned for in the silence where I resided. They had power, juxtaposed as they were against what I did not have. They had beauty.

Before my return, in maturity, to my religion, I looked for this radiance again and again, seeking its replacement in the faces of men, the ease of what seemed the limitless, kinder, secular world outside of Providence, far from my upbringing, far from “you’ve just got to survive, that’s all,” far from my mother, Father Joe, even Gabe.

I would kill the past and its affliction, I thought. I would bury it. And so I did: first Terry, then my father, Gabe, Ma, and finally Father Joe, who, when I told him I thought he would go to heaven, whispered, “Do you think so?” I rarely went to mass, except for the funerals where the past reemerged, and with it the rosary, said in a colder, emptier church, populated with the old, but still open.

I wanted to believe entirely in my new world of career, love affairs, a move to a northern town without Providence’s byzantine complexities, but by midlife it had lost its luster. It seemed religionless, a “skithery-looking thing,” as Gabe had remarked of a boyfriend I had idolized in my twenties. Without gravitas. As I watched my contemporaries’ and my youthful beauty fade, watched them betray one another, was betrayed myself by people I had loved—I felt ill-equipped to deal with the difficulties of life. But more than that, I had deceived myself, for I had never experienced religion as a panacea, but as a fire in my bones. That was why I had run away from it.

Finally, in free fall, I came back. It was Providence that prepared me to return, that place of beauty and pain. In returning, I have come to understand Mary better, her adoring embrace of a soft-fleshed infant, in whose eyes was the knowledge of affliction. In the yearning edifice of the rosary’s prayer, there is continual building, continual renewal.

On my first communion day, I received a blue plastic rosary and a white missal. I have never forgotten my silent walk, with dozens of others, up the aisle of Blessed Sacrament. I wore a treasured white dress and starched veil. It was 1961. I did not know then that we were approaching what would seem the end of that world, the world of loss, acceptance, and incantation, all embodied in the rosary’s purity—a formal order of beauty. My parents would shortly move us to the suburbs. The other Irish and Italians would leave as well. My relatives who grew up in the parish are all long-dead.

In this church, my grandparents worshipped a century ago. Blessed Sacrament is still open, which is a comfort, but I feel an ache as I view the Marian statue with the freighted cognizance of memory. The statue mirrors the awful silence of the past, echoed in my ignorance of the rosary that I now attempt, over and over, to correct.

It is, I now realize, the mystery of the rosary that has always compelled me, and not the form. At its core, the devotion is an enigma that somehow encompasses male and female, longing, radiance, and grief. It aligns a child’s crystalline hope with Christ’s shadowy anguish, in a story which appears simple enough, bead after bead, but tugs at the spirit, as in an unexpected shift of light or the unanchored, airy sense one has when confronted with the radical unknown. The devotion pulls lightly at first, then more insistently. The telling of the beads begins mechanically; they are a puzzle. There is too much to keep in mind—the beads, the prayers, the odd stories with their baroque church histories—all prey to the jeers and emptiness of our culture.

But after a while and with the telling, a certain silence comes. One tells the beads and scenes emerge, from the thirties, fifties, seventies, today. One sees these scenes and recognizes the rosary’s great quiet—and its toughness.

The rosary is not ethereal. It is not, in fact, for the fainthearted. “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” we ask Mary, whom I once thought fragile, opaque, and hard to read. Now I understand her strength as she stands beside us, listening with us to the threshing cadences of the earth.

When I was a child, my brothers and I escaped the feral muteness of my father and mother and wandered Mount Pleasant. We wandered Davis Park, once, in my mother’s day, the estate of a wealthy purveyor of patent medicines; after he left, Ma learned to sew in Mr. Davis’s empty mansion, by then a settlement house for the poor. By the late 1950s, Davis Park was a tangled urban woodland, filled with poplar, spruce, staghorn sumac and trees-of-heaven—all the junk trees of the urban Northeast.

When my brothers and I stood among these bitter trees, we were on the summit of one of the many hills of Providence. Through the woods my brothers and I walked, above ravines littered with tires and tin cans. We tracked another smell, a burned smell. Terry had heard that one of the small jewelry shops in that part of the neighborhood had burned down.

It was on Geneva Street. Terry said, “Look over here!”

We saw the burned beams and walked in our Keds over charred wood and broken glass. Across the street, black-swathed Sicilian crones stared balefully at us. They were stooped in their gardens, overflowing with tomatoes, eggplant, and cucumbers—which, the Irish rumored, were fertilized with Number Two. Beside them, Blessed Mother statues, resplendent and virginal, gazed from the ubiquitous bathtub shrines of the Italians.

My brothers and I walked through the remains of the factory, my brothers talking, the sun beating outside. In the silence, I opened drawers, one by one. In each I found jewels, trays upon trays of scarlet, green, fire, diamond beads. They were not melted, but overflowed in a startling opulence.

There were thousands of them, all illicitly mine in this unexpected place.

“Hurry up now, Ann,” Terry said, for it was late afternoon; we were bounded in our explorations by my father’s return home. It was hard to leave. Among the ruins, I believed, I had entered Aladdin’s cave, filled with jewels, shining in the darkness. I scooped my hands full of beads and felt the cool of the room. I knew that outside was the hilly street and a quiet world.

I fingered the beads. When I tentatively touch the rosary now, I think of the burned beads glowing luminous in the ashes. I see the ancient world of sorrow. I see my mother watching, unseeing, uncomprehending, on her deathbed, her face like the fairytale Snow Queen’s as she watches Kay from a window. “I do not know how long Kay struggled under the northern lights to solve the Ice Puzzle of Reason, pushing the letters over the earth to form the word ‘eternity,’” writes the poet Susan Prospere, “but I know as long as his heart was pierced with a fragment of evil, the work he did was useless.”

I ask my mother if she’s worried about anything, meaning, “Are you afraid to die?”

“Oh no, I’ve led a good life!” she cries, suspicious.

My mother, with all her sadness, is long-dead. I touch the rosary again and I feel her with me on the frozen field of memory. She stumbles with me on our arduous journey. I feel Ma’s translucent hand in mine. I look at it, and how my heart catches at the blue rivers of her veins.

Mary is with us too now, I think. Not the Mary of my youth, with her beauty, her sense of being chosen, but the later Mary, bent with the sorrow of love and incomprehension. Now that I am my parents’ age, this is a Mary whom I have come to understand. I realize that I have never fully believed in her promise. Because of my history, I decided to believe in beauty, making of myself too much a home. I have loved my fear too much, I know. Faith is what I pray for, to love more than what remains in the ashes. To love what is here, now, and what is possible still on this earth.

I finger the rosary’s beads and touch my mother, as I also touch Mary, more corporeal now, warm, ever-living. I touch Him, too, but more in the sense of a beautiful and startling apprehension. I am shocked to know this at last, to know that what I once thought was a dead thing is now incarnate, each bead reflecting a lintel of light, beyond which is more light. In the glare, I know at last that each bead contains these mysteries as it does the past and present for me as well, now and at the hour of my death, amen.

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